This post is not necessarily hazardous to your empathy, compassion, and emotional stability

The Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Kevin O'Brien has stirred strong feelings with his warning that judicial empathy, as invoked by President Obama, is unconstitutional.

I have scoured my pocket copy of the Constitution. Couldn't find a single reference to "empathy," though. I tried searching an online version, too, but when I typed "empathy" in the search window, the only answer I got back was, "Did you misspell something?"

I looked up the oath of office that Souter's successor will take. I don't see "empathy" there, either . . . .

If he's right, one way to identify a proper Supreme Court candidate might be to find somebody who is a heavy technology user with a special taste for streaming video, according to neuroscience research described in The Times (London):

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, announced recently that they had compiled compelling evidence that even the universal traits of human wisdom -- empathy, compassion, altruism, tolerance and emotional stability -- are hard-wired into our brains.

And in particular:

"Our poor brains are definitely suffering information overload," says Felix Economakis, a London-based chartered psychologist who specialises in stress. "Technology is making quantum leaps, bombarding us with new things to focus on, but we have not been able to catch up and adapt. Our brains' attention levels are finite. When everything is screaming at us, we start withdrawing so that normally nice people become unempathetic.

"The primitive fear centre in the brain, called the amygdala, operates in terms of fight or flight. Information overload makes it feel under threat and it shuts down higher brain regions that deal with empathy."

Seriously, though,there are real concerns about the outcomes of childhood saturation with electronic media and communication, and I've expressed my own.

But let's not draw premature conclusions about the real world from early experimental data. Young, media-saturated people are volunteering for community service at a rate that should disarm at least some worries. If all the screen traffic and texting really are impairing our humanity, shouldn't the Millennials rather than the universally reviled Baby Boomers be the real Me Generation?

Anxiety over technology's effects on our own constitutions goes back a long way. From an  Intel blog post, quoting Tom Standage's Victorian Internet, here's a 1868 speech by a New York businessman:

Telegraphy has enabled a rapid pace that keeps the merchant "in continual excitement, without time for quiet and rest". He goes on to describe how the poor chap "goes home after a day of hard work... to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London... and the poor man must dispatch his dinner as hurriedly as possible in order to send off [a] message to California.

As a species, we're usually better than we realize at adapting creatively to the changes our inventions generate.


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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